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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. Headshot

Till Gray Do Us Part? How Marriage Can Survive Midlife

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Few of us are surprised when the young and famous -- à la Reese Witherspoon, Justin Timberlake and Renee Zellwegger -- break up. But when celebrated marriages weather decades of ups and downs and then dissolve? Well, those still have the ability to stun, and can even lead to second looks at our own relationships.

It seems like eons ago when Al and Tipper Gore announced the dissolution of their 40-year marriage. At that time, the blogosphere was filled with raw emotions, ranging from alarm ("this was the last marriage we thought was in trouble") to cynicism ("can any relationship last that long?"). Now, less than a year later, the Internet is buzzing with the news of another iconic marriage on the brink of falling apart. Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife of 25 years, Maria Shriver, announced their separation last week, and once again reports suggest that few (at least among those who do not know them) saw it coming. One writer on The Huffington Post said, "Unlike so many political marriages which have been marred by scandal as of late, the union of Schwarzenegger, 63, and Shriver, 55, seemed rock solid."

As a psychologist who has worked with couples for over 20 years, this isn't new news. Studies show that even "rock-solid" marriages are hard to sustain for a lifetime. As couples see themselves living together well into their 80s and 90s, "till death do us part" has taken on a completely different meaning. "You get to a point where if a marriage is unsatisfying, you're not talking about sticking it out for a couple more years," says marriage and family studies expert Stephanie Coontz. For most of history, the primary purpose of marriage was to create families and to protect them. The marital bond was not burdened by the expectation that it would provide enormous, and endless, gratification. Now, when couples feel dissatisfied with their marriage, or see other options for greater happiness in their future, seeking those opportunities is difficult to resist.

The Gores last year explained to the media that they viewed themselves as having had a good run for four decades -- married long enough to have shared love, career-building, child-rearing and then some. The unromantic reality, we learned, was that it was time for Tipper to move on and Al to move out. So it seems with the Schwarzeneggers. Stories abound about their 25 years of good times (four beautiful children, successful political campaigns and glamorous lives) but also about the bad times (ideological differences, allegations of sexual misconduct and family losses). According to sources close to Shriver, unhappiness had been building over the past two years, and separation finally came when Arnold began talking about reviving his acting career. In a statement Shriver and Schwarzenegger gave to the media, they said, "After a great deal of thought, reflection, discussion and prayer, we came to this decision together."

So why are we surprised? Do we think marriages between these impressive and accomplished people -- and others ranked among The Power Couples List -- are immune to the challenges faced by everyday men and women who struggle to maintain vitality in their marriages? Do we imagine that money, power and influence provide some special kind of glue that magically bonds these couples? We may wish it to be so, but the opposite is actually true. Psychologists know from experience that these types of couples are in fact more vulnerable to the fragility of marriage today. They face greater internal and external stresses that require they work even harder to keep their relationships in tact. Here's why:

Taking Marriage for Granted

Couples that take their marital bond for granted often run into trouble. According to couple's therapist, John Jacobs, M.D., "the single greatest weapon in the battle to ensure the survival of a long term relationship is maintaining awareness of the fragility of the marital bond." And when you ask couples that have been successful maintaining long-term marriages, the theme you hear repeated is, "We made our marriage our highest priority."

Yet, many of us become complacent about our marriage. We assume the institution is a stronger interpersonal bond than it really is. We grow up believing love conquers all, and though we are aware of the high divorce rate and see relationship disasters among our friends, family and all over the media, we tend to believe our relationship will be the exception. And even if our own doesn't work out, we apply this belief to those couples we admire -- the Gores, the Schwarzeneggers and others -- as we likely will as we watch newlyweds William and Kate in the years to come.

For the Gores, Schwarzeneggers and other power couples, it's easy to imagine how priorities can get mixed up, turned around or lost. While not knowing the details of their interpersonal lives, we all know that Al was consumed by his passion for environmental issues, Arnold by his political ambition. These are highly successful and productive men. Their wives are bright, supportive mates who made caring for their families their passion. It makes you wonder if these couples believed their marriages were going to simply take care of themselves?

Schwarzenegger said once during a speaking engagement, "So many people always ask me, 'What is the secret of your success?' And I always tell them, well, there's a short version. You come to America, work hard and marry a Kennedy." While said half jokingly, it's hard not to wonder if these priorities -- and their order importance -- were actually a laughing matter to the Governor's wife.

The Need for New Marital Glue:

Marriage has changed more over the past several decades than it has in thousands of years. Religious and societal pressures no longer provide the kind of adhesive power they once did when marriages ran into trouble. Nor does women's economic dependency on men. While marriage was the path toward companionship, sex and children, there are now many others options available to achieve those goals. Add to that the fact that the stigma of divorce has dramatically lessened and there is a need for new marital glue.

Bonds of marriage must be created by being actively engaged with one another. It requires spending time not only on working out problems together, but also time enjoying each other, having fun, sharing projects, activities, intimacy, sex and pleasure. And time away from kids. Connecting with respect and interest is the new -- and possibly only -- glue that keeps couples bonded in today's culture.

Clearly, among high-powered couples, finding time together is a huge challenge. Not only did the Schwarzeneggers and Gores each have four children, (who no doubt required a lot of time and energy), but they often spent time living in separate locations. Al was known to have traveled the world spreading his beliefs about climate change, for which he ultimately won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Maria was a successful broadcast journalist working for NBC before her husband became Governor of California in 2003. She took a leave from her job to support her husband's political career, but in fact, they spent little time together. Arnold worked at the state capital in Sacramento, commuting by plane to the Pacific coast, where the rest of the family lived full time.

When one or both spouses are focused on building careers and/or living parallel lives in separate locations, it's clear that finding time to enjoy family life is difficult. Finding time away from kids to do the important work of nurturing a relationship is just about impossible. Without the conscientious work devoted to have a loving relationship, it's no surprise when the connection fades until there is nothing left to keep the bond together.

Marriage Through Midlife

Those who study marital trends, like Betsey Stevenson of the Wharton School of Business does, say, "People mistakenly believe if you make it through the first 10 years of marriage, you're home free. That's absolutely not the case." Although the overall divorce rate may be slightly declining (as is the marriage rate, which makes this statistic difficult to interpret), it is rising for those 55 and older. As we are living longer, many of us are just not willing to give up finding a rich and fulfilling life, even if it means leaving our spouse.

For marriages to last beyond midlife, a shift in expectations has to take place. Typically, we enter our most serious relationships during our 20s and 30s. They begin with the romantic dream that our partner will provide us physical gratification and emotional satisfaction. As we move through our 30s, our focus shifts from our marital relationship toward building our careers and creating families. We work hard, and there is less time for fun. We often feel decreasing patience as the demands of children increase. There is even less tolerance for our spouse's needs. As we head into our 40s, most of us begin to recognize our partner's limitations and the realities of marriage. If our marriages survive 20 or 30 years (about half do), by the time we are in our 50s and 60s, we are often faced with the decision to accept diminished expectations or leave.

Both the Gores and Schwarzeneggers fall into the category of what some call the new "gray divorces." Couples in this category may go into their marriages demanding more than ever before but are less willing to tolerate the frustrations and disappointments when those demands are not met after years of being together. With no exception, marital unions require effort to actively maintain warmth and nurturing to keep them alive. Couples may stick it out through years of dissatisfaction for the sake of their children, before splitting up, but many get to a point where if the marriage isn't satisfying, they're not willing to stick around another 20 or 30 years. Couples find that they have grown apart, their affection fades, and things that once felt tolerable no longer are.

When the Gores and Schwarzeneggers married, they, like most couples, surely had high hopes that their bonds would last a lifetime. Few go into marriage expecting anything other than "love will conquer all." But these couples are not exceptions to the vulnerability of modern marriage. If we want our unions to last a lifetime in today's culture, there are a few important ingredients to keep in mind.

  1. We can never take our mates for granted or become complacent about marriage, especially as it extends into midlife.
  2. We must consistently work to create new marital glue to keep our bonds strong and vital.
  3. As our marriages age, we must be willing to accept shifts in our expectations while maintaining mutual appreciation and respect for one another.

Join the discussion and share what you think the most important ingredients are for a successful long term marriage.

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